The Corporation of Trinity House was incorporated by Royal Charter by King Henry VIII on 20 May 1514, and our governance was placed in the hands of 13 members: a Master, four Wardens and eight Assistants.
In the James I Charter of 1604, this number was raised to 31, as it stands today, with the addition of 18 Elder Brethren.
Elder Brethren are sworn in from the ranks of over 400 Younger Brethren and retain the title for life. The Elder Brethren form the Court of the Corporation of Trinity House.
The Elder Brethren are composed of Wardens, ‘Assistants to the Court and ‘Eminent’ Elder Brethren – the first two categories, in addition to being members of the Court are also members of the Corporate Board and trustees to the Trinity House Charities. Some of them are also members of the Lighthouse Board. They tend to be Master Mariners or Naval Officers. Eminent Elder Brethren are members of high renown, and have traditionally included Royalty and Prime Ministers.
The seat of the Corporation has been sited at various places around London since 1514; originally at Deptford (at that time, a major base of naval activity, where Trinity House had a great hall and 21 almshouses), the headquarters have since been at Ratcliff, Water Lane (destroyed then rebuilt in 1666, then again in 1715), and finally in 1796 the house at Tower Hill was built by Samuel Wyatt, where the headquarters have remained ever since, despite suffering massive damage as a result of Blitz action in 1940.
In their capacity as Master Mariners, the duties of the Elder Brethren began with the examination and regulation of Pilotage (initially restricted to the River Thames area), and have grown to take on other powers and responsibilities, including the siting and erecting of various aids to navigation (such as lighthouses, buoys, beacons and lightvessels), attendance at Admiralty Court to advise on maritime disputes and affairs, and of course to govern the multi-faceted Corporation of Trinity House, including the administration of the Corporation’s charitable function – the financing and upkeep of the UK’s largest-endowed maritime charity.
Over the centuries, the Court’s powers and interests have grown to the extent that there are very few maritime affairs that do not involve at least one of the Brethren. There have been many high-ranking and well-known Brethren over the years, including Samuel Pepys, the ‘father’ of the British Navy and famous diarist, twice Master of Trinity House; Sir Thomas Spert, Master of the Mary Rose and the Henri Grâce à Dieu; Sir Winston Churchill, Benjamin Disraeli, William Pitt, the Duke of Wellington, Lord Palmerston and Lord Mountbatten.
Our Master is HRH The Princess Royal, sworn in in 2011 and re-elected annually.